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Category Archive: The Haulout

Tone-Deaf to Death

The immediate, dissatisfying reaction to Jack Layton's passing
Chalk 4 JackJackman ChiuChalk messages for Jack Layton written outside Toronto’s City Hall

A month ago on this blog, I wrote an open letter to Jack Layton in the wake of his announcement that he’d decided to step down from his duties as Leader of the Opposition to focus on his cancer treatment. It spoke of the hope, that very real belief that I shared with a lot of Canadians that Jack and his moustache would be back in Parliament at the end of the summer; but now that we know how his story unfolded, that hope smacks more of denial.

When I started chemo for Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2001, I was nineteen years old — one of the few patients under fifty at my cancer centre. A social worker put me in email contact with Rachel, a twenty-two year old with a brain tumour who was undergoing treatment at the same time. Rachel described her cancer in a message to me, explaining that her doctors gave her a one-in-twenty chance of surviving five years. With my own nine-in-ten survival rate, I was floored. She followed her explanation with, “Oh well, we’ll see how things go.” She assured me that she would one day marry her boyfriend. I don’t know if it was denial or hope, or if those two things are the same, but I agreed that she would.

We stayed in touch for a few months and shared funny stories of hair loss and the awkward but usually endearing things said by people who don’t know what to say, but as we both carried on with our treatments our emails dropped off. Six months into my treatment I was told my cancer was gone. A month later I got an email from Rachel’s boyfriend letting me know she’d passed away. (more…)

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Unwanted Visitor

What's the point of preventing American education theorist William Ayers from entering Canada?

Earlier today, education theorist William “Bill” Ayers delivered a pre-recorded keynote lecture to the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education. While it’s only about an hour-long flight from Ayers’ home city of Chicago to Toronto, where the conference is being held, his lawyers advised him not to bother attempting the trip. He has already been denied entry to Canada on two separate occasions — first in Calgary in 2005, then again in Toronto in 2009 — and his legal advisors determined that he’d be turned back again should he try to re-enter.

Although the American-born professor is a world-renowned expert in teaching, curriculum planning, and education reform, his career trajectory is notably different from those of his peers. Before taking on graduate studies, Ayers was a co-founder of the Weather Underground, the 1970s activist network that planted small homemade explosives at government sites including the US Capitol and the Pentagon. After re-emerging into mainstream life, Ayers became a distinguished professor and senior scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. (He retired in 2010.) While he feels uneasy about such pompous titles, he outright rejects the other label by which he is sometimes identified.

“I still find it annoying that ordinary, intelligent people make me justify the fact that I’m not a terrorist,” Ayers tells me, speaking on the phone from his home in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighbourhood. Nobody was ever killed by a Weather Underground operation — the group phoned in bomb threats prior to each attack, leaving enough time for an evacuation — and Ayers insists that the destruction of public property shouldn’t be equated with terror. He was nevertheless targeted by a hostile media campaign in 2008, as the American right exploited his connections to fellow Hyde Park resident Barack Obama. The media blitz reignited Ayers’ notoriety: he still finds himself explaining to student protesters at campus speaking engagements that he is not a murderer. (more…)

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Flickers of Light

Nigel Dickson and Toronto's Shoot With This collective mentor the photography skills of at-risk youth
Portrait #8Tanisha Evans
Unnamed subjectDanielle ScottPortraits from “Spark”

Can art bring strangers together? Perhaps in some situations, as acclaimed photographer (and friend of The Walrus) Nigel Dickson recently discovered while mentoring at-risk youths in Toronto.

“It was up at the Jane and Finch area, where, to be honest, I’d never been before,” says Dickson. “[The youth] were from three different high schools and different gang neighbourhoods. These people would never have met if they didn’t have this group to come to.”

The “group” is Shoot With This, a film mentorship collective that helps prospective imagemakers develop their creative talents and professional skills. Dickson, an eighteen-time winner of National Magazine Awards, has had such big names as Christopher Plummer, Michelle Obama, and Pierre Trudeau sit before his lens; working with the collective’s young charges was an altogether different project for him. Their collaborative result is “Spark,” a group exhibition that pairs Dickson’s portraits of such Canadian celebrities as Arlene Dickinson and Colin Mochrie with photographs made by teens shooting under his direction.

“We got some good results. A couple of them were already into it, but most of them knew nothing about it,” says Dickson. “We ended it with six photographs that I thought were quite good. Three people in the group showed extreme promise, so who knows, they may go on to develop that.”

“Spark” is on display at The Al Green Gallery in Toronto until June 9.

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“The Walrus” Cannot Be Ignored

“It is the strangest thing you’ve seen / Half animal, half magazine”

A ditty about us — composed and performed by The Arrogant Worms

The Arrogant WormsTom SandlerThe Arrogant Worms performing at The Walrus Foundation Gala

At The Walrus Foundation’s third annual fundraising gala, held last month, our guests were treated to a special performance by the celebrated musical-comedy group, The Arrogant Worms. To mark the occasion, Trevor Strong and The Worms wrote and performed a ditty called “The Walrus.” We’re pleased to give it a wider release here on The Walrus Blog.

Enjoy the wit that has made The Arrogant Worms a celebrated part of Canadian music and comedy for twenty years…

We praise The Walrus, noble beast
Upon whose words we love to feast
The beaver chews, the eagle soars —
The Walrus cannot be ignored

It is the strangest thing you’ve seen
Half animal, half magazine
Every word Canadian —
At least 80 percent of the time


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Taming Like a Shrew

How Rebecca Eckler’s misguided relationship advice hurts us all

How Rebecca Eckler’s misguided relationship advice hurts us all

How to Raise a BoyfriendDoubleday Canada

Oh, gender essentialism. Friend to marketing tactics and sitcom stereotypes everywhere.  For those of you unaware, gender essentialist approaches assume that men and women are fundamentally different, and that the difference is the same every time. Essentialism is always about binaries and never about overlap. Blue and pink. Mars and Venus. He brings home the bacon and she makes him a sandwich. Essentialism makes lady legs touchably smooth and real men pound brewskies during the Super Bowl. It haunts prime time, triggering laugh tracks with its doughy, clueless husbands and shrill judging wives. It’s the reason we see trend pieces about how women can be good managers and dads can stay at home with the kids. It’s the reason why the media feels justified in questioning a woman’s political leadership when she’s subject to PMS, and it’s the reason why men who are not primary breadwinners or sports fanatics are often made to feel inadequate. It’s also the foundation for Rebecca Eckler’s latest book, a guide for women to raise their men like toddlers.

When I brought home my review copy of Eckler’s How to Raise a Boyfriend, my partner (who has in no way been raised by me) asked genuinely, “Is that a satire?” No such luck. I really wanted to give Eckler a fair shake, the benefit of the doubt, to not judge her book by its cover, its marketing, and, well, everything that everyone has already said about it. Eckler — novelist, columnist, and contributor to publications such as Elle, Fashion, Maclean’s, and the National Post — is the target of so much scorn that it brings out a protective, maternal  (essentialist) impulse in me. She has already assured her detractors that the book  is actually funny and in no way sexist. But the problem with my urge to defend Eckler is that she shows so much patronizing disdain for not just the opposite sex but also her own, stereotyping everyone  into two distinct camps of the disappointing (boys) and the disappointed (girls.) The book manages to put the responsibility of good male behaviour on women, as if we’ve all been collectively  failing them by not being clear about the fact that they’re failures. It’s not just a book that perpetuates the idea that men are idiots, but that women have no other role than to constantly correct them.

In How to Raise a Boyfriend’s privileged universe there are oblivious men and hard-done-by women. There are women who get bikini waxes, who spend entire days preparing for their man’s approval, and who leave subtle hints about the bracelet they want for Valentine’s Day. All women in this universe have given birth or will one day give birth. There are certainly no homosexuals. All couples have or need housekeepers and nannies, and should have two bathrooms and two televisions. How do they find money for such relationship savers? “You always have money if you give something up.” I’m sure there are people who strongly disagree with that classist, insular solution. (more…)

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Beetle Mania

Within the forests of Western Canada, climate change takes the form of a voracious maw

In Western Canada, climate change takes the form of a hungry maw

Pine beetle courtesy of Natural Resources Canada/Canadian Forest Service, forest photograph by Eamon Mac MahonPine beetle courtesy of Natural Resources Canada/Canadian Forest Service, forest photograph by Eamon Mac Mahon

What on EarthIn the April 2007 issue of The Walrus, Patrick White reported on an epidemic of mountain pine beetle wreaking havoc on the forests of British Columbia. The population of the pine-killing pest, a native resident of western North America’s forests, began to explode in 1993, and has laid waste to much of BC’s pine. The infestation is now receding there, moving on to Alberta and the US. Vigilance and luck appear to have kept it from traveling any further east across Canada, but the lesson learned is a hard one: even well-intentioned human interventions in the ecosystems we live in and use can have surprisingly devastating effects.

The size of the beetle epidemic is massive. Between mountain pine beetles and wildfires, BC’s half-million square kilometres of forest actually became a net emitter of carbon in 2002 (PDF download), and are expected to remain so until 2020. What should be a valuable carbon sink instead unleashed the equivalent of 40-60 million tonnes of CO2 in 2007 (although this figure includes the carbon contained in wood harvested during that year). Thankfully, Alberta has learned from BC’s example, mounting a swift response that seems to be holding back the outbreak. The sharp winter drops in temperature that would normally have helped to control the beetles also finally showed themselves over the last few years — although too late to save over 600 million cubic metres of British Columbian trees.

The main reasons for this outbreak’s severity are generally put down to two innocuous-sounding factors: slowly rising average temperatures brought on by global warming, and decades of fire prevention by forest management authorities. The warming has made it ever less likely that winter temperatures will dip low enough to kill the beetles; fire suppression has created forests unnaturally dense with old trees — ripe ground for both severe fires and hungry beetles. It is thanks to the complexity of ecosystems that a few degrees of warmth and an effectively carried out fire-fighting policy could have these counter-intuitively disastrous results. (more…)

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Mister Nice Guy Goes to Regina

Stuart McLean takes his kind-hearted Vinyl Cafe Christmas show to Saskatchewan

Stuart McLean takes his kind-hearted Vinyl Cafe Christmas show to Saskatchewan Canadians, I’m sad to say, rarely make good audiences at live performances. We’re a bit too instinctively reserved to display the enthusiasm that an appreciative crowd can add to a live event, thereby creating a genuinely integrated and intense experience. When we do clap or sing along or give a standing ovation, it’s often a moment too late — like when you have an urge to kiss a potential lover but wait too long, losing the moment forever.

Part of Stuart McLean’s achievement as a performer is that he knows how to break through the encrusted iciness of Canadian audiences. The widely known author and CBC talker’s stage presence puts Canadians at ease. He makes us open up and reveal ourselves in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t.

Like all of us, Stuart McLean has many selves. Aside from whatever private personalities he may possess, his three significant public manifestations are his radio voice, his prose persona, and his stage presence. When I wrote about McLean for the December 2010 issue of The Walrus, I had spent many hours listening to his radio show and reading his books. I had heard him deliver, with great verve, a speech about the cartoonist Jimmy Frise for the 2009 Doug Wright Awards, but I had never seen one of the Vinyl Cafe shows that he performs across the Dominion every year. (more…)

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Too Brazen

Maclean’s, Margaret Wente, and the Canadian media’s inarticulacy about race

Maclean’s, Margaret Wente, and the Canadian media’s inarticulacy about race


Perhaps Americans talk too much about race, but Canadians have the opposite problem. From Frederick Douglass to Ruth Benedict to Martin Luther King to César Chávez to Toni Morrison, our neighbours to the south have a robust and complex tradition of tackling race head-on in public discourse. Canada has its own racial and ethnic divides — and a distinctive habit of stammering incoherently when confronted with civil rights issues. The latest evidence of Canadian inarticulateness on this crucial topic is the now-notorious Maclean’s article “‘Too Asian?’” (from the magazine’s 2010 university ranking issue), as well as yesterday’s defence of the newsweekly offered by Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

“I’m much more offended by bad editing than I am by xenophobia,” I wrote in an email to a friend when I first read the Maclean’s article. What I meant was that the article, co-written by Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Köhler, was a classic case of ruining an important topic by packaging it in a sensationalistic and ham-fisted fashion. I actually think the authors and editors meant well when they started the piece, which contains some excellent reporting about race relations on the Canadian campus. Unfortunately, as is the magazine’s habit of late, Maclean’s dressed up the topic in an attention-grabbing tabloid manner, so that instead of being an examination of racism it became an example of xenophobia.

The problems with the Maclean’s article are many and systematic. I’ve already discussed them here and here. Briefly, the article leaves a bad aftertaste because: (more…)

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Lift Off

The National Gallery of Canada launches a satellite project in downtown Toronto

The National Gallery of Canada launches a satellite project in downtown Toronto

Thomas DemandSpace Simulator (2003), Thomas Demand

A new partnership between Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada and Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art debuted this week with the collaborative exhibition Adams/Demand/Fraser. Over the course of the three-year project, MOCCA — until now, a relatively minor institution best known for its massive ambitions — will host work from the NCG’s contemporary art collection. At a press conference announcing the initiative, NCG director Marc Mayer and MOCCA director David Liss laid out how the shared content is meant to complement the artists (and works) featured by the latter’s main programming.

“This new partnership will expand [the National Gallery’s] service to Canadians in one of Canada’s most populous cities and help broaden the conversation on contemporary art,” Mayer said.

The relationship is well begun. From now through the end of December, a newly renovated project space at MOCCA is featuring loaned work by Canadian artists Kim Adams and Geoffrey Farmer and Berlin’s Thomas Demand. Liss and NCG curator Josée Drouin-Brisebois selected the pieces — a single sculpture by Adams and large-scale photographs by Farmer and Demand that play on the temporality of sculptural media — to play off MOCCA’s current exhibition, David Hoffos: Scenes from the House Dream. (more…)

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The thrill of Minecraft, the internet's newly viral, crudely sadistic sandbox game

The thrill of Minecraft, the net’s newly viral, crudely sadistic sandbox game


It’s hard to imagine this pitch going over well at, say, Activision or EA headquarters:

I’ll construct a really punishing computer game, with dreadful graphics and no goals or story whatsoever. Players will spend most of their time making stuff out of other stuff they find and trying not to die. I’ll release a buggy alpha version early on, let players fiddle around with it for free online, and make millions off of €10 downloads while still developing the game.

So much the worse for Activision or EA, then: Swedish game developer Markus Persson, better known as Notch, has singlehandedly accomplished exactly that this past year. His strange sandbox-construction game, Minecraft, has gone completely viral, with over 1.25 million registered accounts and sales around $100,000 per day since early September; he’s now building a company and hiring a team to bring the game to completion.

The basic mechanics of Minecraft are simple. You appear as a roughly rectangular person in the midst of a randomly generated environment, populated by trees, mountains, lakes, and peaceful animals. Everything in the world is composed of cubic blocks, and anything you see can be collected by breaking it apart — first with punches, and later with tools that you craft. The most useful resources are ores found in deep underground caves, but wherever there is darkness, there are monsters. As the pixelated sun sets at the end of your first day in Minecraft, you must scramble to dig yourself into a shelter of some kind, lest roving hordes of zombies, skeletons, and other creatures find you. And they’re there for you alone; a crude multiplayer mode is available, but in the default you are the sole human occupant of your world.

The game provides no story and has no overriding goals; you can spend your time collecting materials, fighting monsters, building ridiculous things, or exploring the endless landscape, generating new terrain wherever you go (Notch calculates the maximum size of Minecraft’s map at eight times the surface area of Earth). It’s disorienting at first to be playing a fundamentally aimless game, but Minecraft — a.k.a. “Minecrack” — turns out to have a peculiarly seductive appeal. After playing it for a couple of weeks, I have some ideas about why that might be. (more…)

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Rock, Paper, Starcrafts

From hand-to-hand combat to advanced battle strategy, it’s all in the metagame

From hand-to-hand combat to advanced battle strategy, victory is all in the metagame

Illustration by David RusakDavid Rusak

VIZZINI sits at a covered table, on which rests a bottle of wine and two goblets; BUTTERCUP, his blindfolded captive, is to his left. The MAN IN BLACK, seated opposite, has just added a fatal poison to one of the cups — unseen by VIZZINI, who now must choose which drink to consume. The survivor of this contest will claim BUTTERCUP as his prize.

MAN IN BLACK: All right. Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right… and who is dead.

VIZZINI: But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet, or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool. You would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

MAN IN BLACK: You’ve made your decision then?

VIZZINI: Not remotely. Because iocaine comes from Australia, as everyone knows. And Australia is entirely peopled with criminals. And criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me. So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.

MAN IN BLACK: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

VIZZINI: Wait till I get going! Where was I?

My game begins, as it always does, with a central building and a handful of workers. With them gathering minerals and more workers on the way, I scout out my enemy’s location — he is playing as the gooey, alien Zerg — while developing my base and building an army. After a few minutes, my first wave of troops — a small squad of rocket-firing heavy infantry called marauders — is ready to go and, fearing the loss of the initiative, I venture out to invade my opponent. As I reach his base, a stream of zerglings arrive, already upgraded to run at high speed, and instantly swarm my fighters, trapping and then clawing them apart before dashing off to demolish my base. Moments later, they tear through my protective wall, the couple of new soldiers I’ve managed to pump out behind it, and, finally, my precious resource gatherers. With a dejected “gg,” I surrender and go straight to searching for a new match, eager to try new approaches against the next random opponent. (more…)

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List Fulfilment

Walrus contributors David Bergen and Sarah Selecky vie for the Giller Prize

Walrus contributors David Bergen and Sarah Selecky vie for the 2010 Giller Prize

The Matter With MorrisPaul Farenbacher's Yard SaleLeft: painting by Sam Dargan; right: illustration by Robin CameronImages from David Bergen’s “What’s the Matter With Morris?” and Sarah Selecky’s “Paul Farenbacher’s Yard Sale”

This morning’s big announcement: the longlist for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most esteemed literary award. This morning’s cause for celebration at The Walrus HQ: seeing two of the magazine’s contributors among the thirteen nominated authors.

In the magazine’s March issue, we excerpted “Paul Farenbacher’s Yard Sale” — a poignant selection from Selecky’s nominated short story collection, This Cake is for the Party. (More recently, managing editor Jared Bland interviewed Selecky for The Walrus Blog.)

Bergen, who won the Giller in 2005 (for his novel The Time In Between), appeared in our September issue: our story “The Matter With Morris” is a delectable taste of the book he’s been nominated for this year.

Congratulations to Sarah, David, and their peers on the longlist.

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